The body parts are life-sized and made from living cells!
Now, for the first time, scientists have used living cells as the printer’s “ink” in order to produce life-sized body parts and tissues that could be used for transplant surgeries.
Anthony Atala, a researcher involved in the study from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, told The Guardian that the bioprinter “can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape. With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.”
The researchers have been developing the bioprinter, called the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP), for nearly 10 years. To demonstrate its abilities, the scientists printed muscle, cartilage structures, a jaw bone, and a strikingly accurate human ear.
Once the technology is fine-tuned and proven safe in humans, the 3D bioprinted body parts could be used to replace injured or diseased tissue in patients. As detailed in the study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the replacement parts will be made to meet the unique needs of each patient since they’re designed in a computer — no “one size fits all” mass-production approach.
Bioprinters have previously been used to print mini-replicas of organs like brains and kidney tissues in order for scientists to conduct research on them, but until now, no scientists have successfully printed something that’s life-sized and stable enough to function as a reliable transplant.
A key component of the research was figuring out how to keep the cells alive throughout the printing process. The team discovered that the solution was to combine living cells extracted from transplant recipients with a water-based “ink” that promotes cell health and growth. In order to ensure nutrients and oxygen could reach all the cells, a network of microchannels were printed in the tissues, mimicking blood vessels.
During the printing process, a water-based gel and plastic coating provide the structure needed by the 3D-printed body parts, but after the surgical implant, they fade away, leaving behind only the biological materials.
The Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System at work printing a jaw bone structure. Courtesy of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
So far, the researchers have used living cells extracted from humans, rabbits, rats, and mice to demonstrate the technology’s ability. They still have to test the implants on humans, but the mice studies produced promising results — the scientists implanted human-sized ears under the skin of mice and observed the ears retain their shape, grow new supporting cartilage, and maintain a healthy blood supply. Yes, the research didn’t sound too enjoyable for the mice.
“Our results indicate that the bio-ink combination we used, combined with the micro-channels, provides the right environment to keep the cells alive and to support cell and tissue growth,” Atala said in a statement.
Although the technology has displayed impressive results so far, scientists still have to prove its efficacy in human trials — but they don’t seem to be too worried. Adam Feinberg, a biomedical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University who wasn’t involved in the study, told The Verge, "You’re going to see a lot of exciting advances over the next year or two that will push this from the realm of science fiction into something that’s close to impacting patients."